When I hear fundamentalists preaching hate and atheists ranting against organized religion, I am proud to be agnostic. It seems the only intellectual and moral position with any integrity. It seems the simplest position to take – the only one that avoids obsession and allows me to appreciate the Christian culture of the past while neither overvaluing it nor repudiating it. In fact, agnosticism has a sub-culture of its own that is more satisfyingly complex — and therefore closer to the real state of humanity — than fervent belief or unbelief.
When I call myself an agnostic, I mean that I take no position on the question of whether a deity exists. Given the existing evidence, I tend to doubt it. However, I reserve the right to change my mind if any evidence worth considering comes along.
I suppose that if you define deity as the underlying structure of the universe, I might grudgingly call myself a pantheist. But, while that structure deserves my admiration, I see no reason to worship it, or to think that it is sentient and would receive or want my worship. So, on the whole, I remain an agnostic.
One of the major advantages of this position is that I can put aside all questions about religion and get on with my life. This is something that neither the religious or atheistic can manage to do. On the one hand, the religious obsess over what their creed would have them to, abdicating personal responsibility for their morality, as if they are overgrown children.
On the other hand, most of the atheists I know obsess over religion at least as much as the faithful — and often more. Like alcoholics, they are pre-occupied about what they have given up, so much so that the average atheist could be described in the language of addiction as a recovering Christian or a recovering Buddhist.
By contrast, as an agnostic I no longer concern myself with faith or lack of it. Both are equally irrelevant so far as I am concerned, and if I am somewhat closer in outlook to an atheist than to a believer, unlike both I let go.
That is not to say that religion holds no interest to me. Nothing that occupied so much of humanity’s attention for so many centuries can be unimportant if you are interested in history. Over the years, I have read a variety of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish texts as well as some Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Sufi and Zen texts. But I approach them from a scholarly perspective. For the most part, they are not instructions about how to live and think, but rather a record of how people believed they should live and think in the past.
Encountering these beliefs can be fascinating, but I have no more urge to imitate them than I do to wear a toga or carry an assegai.
The same is true of art and history. Although religion has clearly inspired great art, I do not look for prove of my convictions in that inspiration. Nor do I expect archeology or newly discovered documents to confirm the truth of what is presented in the Bible or any other religious text.
Yet, at the same time, I feel no need to repudiate my culture’s religious past. I accept and appreciate it as an interesting example of the varieties of human experience, recognizing that it has probably shaped my thoughts to an extent – even in a post-Christian era – and see no need to dismiss the outlooks of my ancestors. As an agnostic, I have not repudiated my past so much as repositioned myself in relation to it.
To others, I know, this perspective is intolerable. Nor, in fact, is it always easy. But I have concluded that my two-way doubt is an accurate perception – or at least a more accurate one that faith or non-faith. There is a terrible certainty about faith or non-faith alike that too easily becomes strident and simplistic.
What I appreciate about agnosticism is that it encourages perception and acceptance of ambiguity. That is why, I suspect, that the English language novel did not manage to come into its own until the skepticism of the nineteenth century set in. Strong convictions make effective polemics, but they discourage observation and meditation. That is why there is such a rich sub-culture of agnosticism in the works of writers like George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. In such writers, the uncertainty of belief leads to a closer examination of people and their habitual behavior – and, ultimately, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, to psychology.
Agnosticism has no grand statements about human existence. If it did, then by definition it would not be agnosticism. But as a perspective, as a stance in relation to the rest of the world, it seems less self-deceiving and more self-correcting than either faith or atheism can ever hope to be. Agnosticism has no pre-conceived perspective, which makes it the philosophical position of choice for those who prefer to know the world as it is rather than how they would like it to be.